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Consumption and environmental collapse

April 21, 2008


Today the Dalai Lama presented a lecture on global environmental sustainability at the University of Michigan. One of his central points had to do with personal consumption and personal happiness: the fact that the planet simply cannot sustain the level of material consumption characteristic of affluent countries, in support of the world’s population of over 6.5 billion people. He expressed his hope that we will come to think differently about happiness, fulfillment, and material consumption.

This message made me think of the very powerful analysis that is conveyed in an important recent book by James Gustave Speth, The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. Speth has been an environmental scientist and policy expert for decades — he is currently the dean of Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies — and he has an understanding of the crisis that our global society faces that is just as powerful and fact-based as any I have read.

Speth opens his argument with a set of sixteen graphs over a time scale of 1750-2000. And they all have roughly the same shape: beginning at moderate levels in 1750, each of the variables show exponential growth that begins to accelerate in roughly 1900-1950. The variables? Population, total real GDP, foreign direct investment, damming of rivers, water use, fertilizer consumption, paper consumption, motor vehicles, CO2 consumption, ozone depletion, average surface temperature, great floods, ocean ecosystems, coastal biogeochemistry, loss of rain forest, global biodiversity. These graphs tell a powerful story in the aggregate: these are trends that cannot be sustained.

Or consider the second paragraph of the book:

Half of the world’s tropical and temperate forests are now gone. The rate of deforestation in the tropics continues at about an acre a second. About half the wetlands and a third of the mangroves are gone. An estimated 90 percent of the large predator fish are gone, and 75 percent of marine fisheries are now overfished or fished to capacity. Twenty percent of the corals are gone, and another 20 percent severely threatened. Species are disappearing at rates about a thousand times faster than normal. The planet has not seen such a spasm of extinction in sixty-five million years, since the dinosaurs disappeared. Over half the agricultural land in drier regions suffers from some degree of deterioration and desertification. Persistent toxic chemicals can now be found by the dozens in essentially each and every one of us. (1-2)

This is the “edge of the world” to which the title refers.

Speth correctly notes that these environmental crisis lines all derive from the economic realities of accelerating economic growth since 1900. Economic activity consumes resources, produces waste products, and clears land for development. Moreover, he observes that the economies that we have created in the modern world place growth at the value center: the central goal of economic activity is to accumulate and grow. And yet he notes as well that often this growth is counter-productive; for example, he quotes the UNDP Human Development Report 1996 and its findings of jobless growth, ruthless growth, voiceless growth, rootless growth, and futureless growth. And he reviews some of the survey data about “personal happiness” that seems to support the point as well: past a certain threshold point, greater income doesn’t bring greater happiness.

So if there is a bridge at the edge of the world — what is it made of? What kind of transformation of the world’s activity can slow and eventually reverse these catastrophic environmental trends?

Speth provides a hard but achievable prescription, and it is very much like that expressed by the Dalai Lama today in Ann Arbor: we must re-evaluate the meaning of life, we must change the way we think about material consumption, we must find happiness in activities that are not resource intensive, and we must tame our growth engines in the economic structures in which we live. Nothing less than a fundamental change in our personal philosophies and our economic structures will save the planet’s welfare — from rain forest to Great Lakes to fisheries to the air we breath and the water we drink.

Can we do it? It seems most unlikely. But it’s probably the only way out.

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